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Column Wed Jul 01 2015

Terminator Genisys, Magic Mike XXL, The Little Death & Closer to God

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Terminator Genisys


Well that was exhausting. Our old pals are back, still attempting save the world from nuclear annihilation, still going over and over the same set of events and place in recorded history that began more than 30 years ago in James Cameron's The Terminator and continued seven years later (by our calendar) in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. By the way, for those counting and those I can't discourage from seeing the latest installment, Terminator Genisys (the fourth sequel), it certain helps keep things in the new film straight if you've given yourself a refresher viewing of the first two films. In fact, the makers of Genisys seem to have taken the scripts from the first two films and written over parts of them in crayon, then cut and pasted whole sequences into each other to come up with the newest version of folks from the future protecting and/or attempting to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke from "Game of Thrones" stepping in for Linda Hamilton).

This time around, we start at the beginning, which actually means starting at the end. We jump to the future, when what appears to be the final battle between humans and machines is being waged, with the humans on the verge of shutting the intelligence knows as Skynet once and for all. The leader of the rebellion, John Connor (Jason Clarke from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Zero Dark Thirty), has gone through his entire adult life knowing that young Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney, of the Divergent films and Jack Reacher) will grow up, travel back in time, save his mother Sarah, and become his father. As a result, he grooms the boy, who grows to be one of the greatest fighters in his army, and soon enough, they get to that moment in time when they discover that the machines have developed a time machine and sent back the original Terminator to kill Sarah. And right behind him goes Reese with a total knowledge of the future and a pre-arranged affection for Sarah.

But when Reese arrives in the past, things are not as they were in the first film. Sarah is no longer a defenseless waitress unaware that her would-be killer and savior are converging on her location. When Reese finds her, she's already become a great warrior thanks to an aged Terminator she calls Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger, more or less how he looks today), who has just defeated the younger model (the CG-created 1984 version is Arnold is impressively rendered and promptly pummeled) and is attempting to help Sarah take out an early incarnation of Skynet before Judgment Day even happens. Apparently a mystery somebody sent back another Terminator (presumably the same one in Judgment Day), programmed to protect Sarah, to when she was a little girl, rather than an adult woman, so it could train her to fight for most of her life.

To make things just a little bit weirder, the future bad guys have also sent the infamous liquid metal T-1000 back in time, this time played by South Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee (The Good, the Bad, the Weird; I Saw the Devil), who actually does bare a striking resemblance to a young Robert Patrick from Judgment Day. The reason I'm diving into so much plot — and believe me, I've only scratched the idiotic surface — is to give you examples of just how deeply and profoundly screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have pillaged the archives to create this patchwork version of the Terminator universe. There are also appearances by Skynet inventor Miles Dyson (this time played by Courtney B. Vance, taking over from Joe Morton), as well as a curious police character named O'Brien (J.K. Simmons), who I believe is one of the few officers not killed in the police station massacre from the first film. No reference is left unreferenced, no catchphrase is left unspoken, no important plot turn left unmolested and then some.

Things are further confused when some of the characters time-travel a few years into the future, to right before Skynet is activated, and then John Connor himself shows up to assist his mother and Reese in ending the threat of the machines forever... or does he? There genuinely came a point in this story where I gave up attempting to count the number of ways this pretzel-shaped restructuring of history didn't make any goddamn sense. And when your structure becomes so convoluted that the audience stops caring, you have a serious problem.

Going into Terminator Genisys, I thought the one saving grace might be director Alan Taylor, who is responsible for many key episodes of "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," as well as Thor: The Dark World). He's a gifted filmmaker, especially when it comes to taking crowded, complicated sequences and ordering them in a way that makes sense. He also has a great sense of character, and actually included bits of character insight and development here, even into action sequences. Some of the big fight sequences in Genisys are beautifully staged, especially toward the end of the film when Sarah and Reese are battling a new breed of enemy that is both man and machine (it actually looks like it's made of magnetic shavings), but by the time we hit that moment in the film, so much nonsense has occurred that's it's virtually impossible to feel the stakes.

So what did I like? The extended opening sequence in the beginning set in the future, previously only glimpsed in small doses in previous films. For those of you turning up for Genisys because you heard "Dr. Who's" Matt Smith is in it, well, if you force yourself not to blink, you'll catch him. And I actually didn't mind the section of the film set in 1984, and how a few key moments are re-created and messed with by the screenwriters. At least the structure in those segments makes sense. But all the rest feels like a facsimile of the familiar. There's a quick shot when the very first Arnold version of The Terminator is taken off the assembly line to be sent back in time. Surrounding the muscle-bound, skin-covered robot are identical versions of him. I can't think of a better metaphor for this movie — it's more of the same.

And the prospect of more of these literally exhausts my brain. How many times can they go back to the well until all that is left is an empty, dried-out pit? I think we've already hit bedrock, but someone needs to the tell the suits in charge, because Terminator Genisys is a husk of a film waiting to get blown away by a stiff wind.

Magic Mike XXL

As did most people, I thought Magic Mike was not just great as pure entertainment, but it was honest about its depiction of some of the seedier elements connected with the world of male stripping/exotic dancing. From the drugs to the exchange of money for sexual favors to the way the world sucks in young men looking for a quick shot of cash and attention from women (or men, let's be fair). Both the good and bad sides of the coin were pulled from the life of the film's star, Channing Tatum, who spent his barely legal years as a stripper. But he was lucky: he got out early and became one of the best dancers the big screen has right now as a result of the training he received getting in a guy-string for tips. As directed by Steven Soderbergh (his second to last feature film) and scripted by Tatum's pal Reid Carolin, Magic Mike became this generation's Saturday Night Fever by blending the down and dirty with the often-hilarious and skillfully executed dance routines.

Magic Mike XXL (also written by Carolin) is a lesser and very different animals in terms of its focus, but it still opens our eyes a bit wider to the world of male entertainment, while wowing us with its sexually charged choreography and overall bro camaraderie, moving the setting from a single club to an RV road trip, fueled entirely by testosterone and protein shakes. As you might remember from the last film, Mike left the business to start his own custom-furniture business, which he's still doing three years later with some degree of success (although the fact that he isn't making enough to get his one employee health insurance haunts him). He's on the verge of blowing up and maybe even opening up a new location, but the amount of work he's putting into the business isn't leaving much time for his lady, Brooke, who isn't actually seen in the film — she's only talked about as a figure missing from Mike's life (we miss you Cody Horn).

More significantly missed is Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, who has apparently split Tampa and his nightclub, leaving Mike's old dancing buddies high and dry for work. Not really qualified to do anything else and lacking Mike's ambition to get out of the business, Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiell), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) contact Mike and propose a quick road trip up the East Coast from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for a big male stripper convention, where they stand to get national exposure and recognition.

Like all great odysseys, Magic Mike XXL is about the journey not the destination — although the destination is pretty damn great too — and the boys have all manner of wild adventures along the way — from a Jacksonville club that seems to cater mostly to gay men and transvestites (it's not exactly spelled out, but that appears to be what we're seeing) to a side trip to Savannah, where Mike seeks the help and emcee skills of former employer Rome (a quite lively and swagger-laden Jada Pinkett Smith). More of an atmospheric, erotic house party than strip club, Rome's place looks like a sex club with no sex, only men dancing for ladies and treating them like royalty. The vibe is quite different than Dallas' free-for-all hump festival. The dancers (including one played by Michael Strahan, which is just odd) are more like sweaty massage chairs than bump-and-grind experts. Also on hand is 95-lb. Donald Glover as a singing stripper, who lacks in pectoral muscles but makes up for it with confidence and a sultry voice.

The issue with Rome's venue is that it doesn't feel like a real place. The lighting, the staged path that Mike and his crew make their way from room to room, the way Mike has to re-audition for Rome to show he still cares about her and has still got his moves, it all feels artificial and set up for the film, rather than the customers. There are maybe a few too many moments like this — not enough to ruin the film but just enough to take you out of it in a distracting way. But if you've made it this far in this review already, I'm guessing you'll find on-screen distractions in other, more appropriate places. But it's a double-edged sword because the most staged moments are also wildly entertaining. When Richie does a ridiculous sexy dance for a female gas-station convenience store clerk while he's hopped up on molly, it's a show stopper, but it's also about as authentic as an episode of "Glee."

Once again, Mike gets a would-be love interest to flirt with relentlessly in the form of photographer Zoe (Amber Heard), and while she's a fairly unmemorable character, one of my favorite sequences occurs when Mike and the boys drop by her home and meet her mother (a wonderfully raunchy Andie MacDowell) and her similarly aged cocktail lady friends, all of whom swoon over and circle these younger men like they were hyenas ready to pounce on fresh man meat. And most importantly, the scene works because it feels real... real sleazy. There is a bit of the old Magic Mike in XXL to be sure. But I also liked that this is a sequel that gets its most fully electric moments when the men are teasing and pleasing the ladies. The men aren't sexually aggressive, but they are certainly accommodating; it borders on charming.

As the film's big conclusion proves beyond any doubt, this one is aimed at having fun. Whereas some people complained that the original was too dark in places, Magic Mike XXL makes the profession of male stripping look like it's a blast on both sides of the lapdance. The final epic performance is so well choreographed, lit and art directed, it reminded me a great deal of the finale of Pitch Perfect 2 (the fact that Elizabeth Banks shows up briefly in this segment really drives home that point). There's no denying the craftsmanship of the final dance numbers, with each member of the crew getting a chance to shine and expressing their inner desires in a way they never would have been allowed to working for Dallas.

A great deal of the film is just about hanging with the guys in the RV (or whatever vehicle they get their hands on when that stops working for them), but some of those moments seem truly unfocused, as if the camera was left on accidentally, and the guys are just shooting the shit but not really listening to each other. I happen to love unscripted bullshitting in any movie as a means to develop the characters and catch them off guard and natural. But just as often in Magic Mike XXL, the guys (outside of Tatum, who at least has some improv chops from the Jump Street films) don't have much to say, and I bet most guys who have their jobs have plenty to talk about.

Magic Mike XXL is directed by Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh's constant first assistant director for more than 20 years, so the look and feel of the film should feel familiar to fans of the stylistic choices of the first film. Adding to that, the technically "retired" Soderbergh is the cinematographer and editor on this film, so you can rest easy knowing that this sequel is in capable hands. My issues with the movie are less about aesthetics and more about Tatum and screenwriter Carolin pulling back rather than digging deeper into the lives of these objectified men, clearly suffering for their art (I'm kidding). This is basically a party and dance film, with a few key revelations thrown in like scraps to remind us what once was. The work is still solid and undeniably entertaining, but feel free to lower your expectations slightly if you admired the original movie for its insight as well as its sight lines.

The Little Death

Winner of an audience award at this year's SXSW Film Festival, The Little Death is the first feature film from Australian actor-turned-writer/director Josh Larson (best known to American audiences from Showtime's "House of Lies"), and it's a darkly funny look at the unusual sexual practices and fetishes of a handful of couples, many of whom are going through tough times that these kinks are either causing or curing.

Lawson kicks things off, casting himself as loving and sweet boyfriend Paul whose girlfriend Maeve (Bojana Novakovic) wants to act out a rape fantasy. Lots of laughs, right? But in truth, the film handles it quite deftly. Rather than focusing on the fantasy itself, it becomes a discussion about how impossible acting out such a fantasy is since she'll know it's him, and since she wants him to do this, it's not really rape. By this twisted logic, Paul goes out of his way to arrange an "event" that is both safe and allows Maeve to be unsure it's Paul doing it. The outcome is actually very funny, but I'm not sure how their storyline is going to play on date night at the movies.

Some of the couplings are quite amusing and less disturbing, like the couple who begins to get into role playing, unlocking a hidden desire in the husband (Damon Herriman) to become an actor, so much so that he begins to get costumes and props into the mix, foregoing the actual sex to get the best performance out of him. There's also the wife (Kate Box) who is trying to get pregnant, and the only way she can orgasm (which maximizes the chance of getting pregnant) is to see her husband (Patrick Brammall) cry. As a result, she stages things in their life to make him cry, like putting up photos around the house of his recently dead father or taking their beloved dog to a friends and pretending it ran away. It sounds cruel, but her passion for her elaborate schemes is a scream.

I was a little less interested in the couple who seem to genuinely despise each other. He (Alan Dukes) falls in love with her (Lisa McCune) the most when he watches her sleep, but when he goes to stroke her hair, she wakes up, leading to a succession of sleepless nights that, in turn, has him falling asleep at work. When he's given a sleeping pill by his boss to help him sleep at night, his wife accidentally drinks the tea he's put it in and passes out. Instead of doing anything kinky, he simply takes her to their bed and stares at her and is happy. Strangely enough, this storyline ends very unsatisfactorily and unhappily.

There's very little overlap among the stories and characters, but I think I read somewhere that everyone lives on the same street. I don't remember that being established, but it also doesn't really matter that much. These folks could be any of us, and they're just normal and just strange enough to make their specific behaviors represent a range of sexual proclivities, both silly and tragic. The title The Little Death is a euphemism for orgasm, and the film is certainly a unique exploration of the lengths we humans will go to achieve one.

The work ends with something of a coda involving a female call center operator who translates calls from deaf customers (via a Skype-like service) to hearing folks who don't speak sign language. It just so happens the young man she gets a call from is trying to get through to a phone sex worker, and the operator must translate the graphic call. Instead, she fudges the translation so that the man sounds like a patient lover and the phone sex woman is a bit more sophisticated. It's a cute, simple segment that reveals a great deal about how men and women view sex, and how we might be a bit better and less selfish with it. I'm guessing that by the end of that call, all parties are slightly better lovers. The Little Death is a small, quite funny movie that will likely spark healthy conversations about bedroom practices and fantasies, or maybe just give couples a few new ideas. The film opens Friday in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Closer To God

One of my absolute favorites from the festival circuit in the last year is the disturbing American offering Closer To God, which opens quite simply with the creation of the first successful human clone, a baby girl named Elizabeth, the creation of genetic scientist Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs). Dr. Reed has not walked into this area of research blindly, and it becomes clear after some time that there have been many failed attempts at this process with some horrifically catastrophic results that include everything from death to something far more disturbing.

Dr. Reed attempts to delay news of the Baby Elizabeth until the clone is fully tested and time has passed, but soon word gets out, triggering a media circus, followed almost immediately by an outpouring of almost universal hatred for Dr. Reed for messing with God's natural order. First-time writer-director Billy Senese does a great job of manufacturing and re-creating a familiar brand of fear mongering, flow of misinformation and speculation, and flat out lies and personal attacks on Dr. Reed, who simply wants to use his work to further stem-cell research and other means of curing previously incurable conditions.

But there are those even in Dr. Reed's team who don't like the work he's doing, including one person who takes and leaks photos of Baby Elizabeth complete with small, but no less creepy-looking receptor imbedded in her forehead, something that was photoshopped out of official photos of her released shortly after her creation was announced. These images lead to threats of legal action and child-endangerment charges, but then the dilemma presents itself as to whether Elizabeth is a human being. If she's not, can the doctor be charged with endangering a human life?

Without attempting to take sides, Senese's screenplay simply creates a plausible series of events that would likely bloom under these circumstances. Certainly science versus religion takes center stage in Closer To God, but there's another, more genre-familiar element to the film that I won't spoil here, but things linger on the creepier side of things and it has to do with those previous failed attempts at cloning by the good Dr. Reed.

The movie authentically portrays the searing atmosphere that surrounds the persecuted man at the center of this story, and Childs' performance is quite riveting. Reed has clearly got his head and intentions in the right place, but his methods and ethics are often questionable in his pursuit of knowledge. And while the conclusion may be inevitable, it takes nothing away from the ever-present high tension levels. I hope people actually check out this film, if only to have the conversations that it will undoubtedly spark. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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asdasd / July 7, 2015 3:07 AM

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Watch Magic Mike XXL Online / July 7, 2015 3:14 AM

We are discussing - says Matt Bomer - and to think that when the first proposed have my Magic Mike seemed to me a small independent project ...". Original film Costato $ 7 million and it has earned 167 worldwide.

rambodsouza / July 7, 2015 3:15 AM

Watch Magic Mike XXL Online

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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